One of the highly appealing aspects of Crimea as a travel destination (in case gorgeous nature, sea & sun and wine by the bucket were not enough) is its incredibly diverse cultural heritage. Ancient Greeks, Visigoths, Vikings, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, Genoese, Georgians, Tatars, Ottoman Turks and Russians have all left their mark on this relatively small spot of land* – and that’s before you even get to the modern times!
One of the most significant influences on Crimea’s development came from the Ottoman Empire, and Crimean Khans, who ruled the peninsula and adjacent lands (at that point populated mostly by Crimean Tatars) as part of that Empire from 1427 till 1783. For the last 250 years of the Crimean Khanate its capital was located in Bakhchysarai, a small town close to the southern tip of the peninsula, about 25 kilometers from the Black Sea. Although the Ottoman Turks were kicked out of the land by Russian Empress Catherine II in the 1780s, and the Khanate dissolved, the Bakhchisaray Palace Complex was left intact and preserved over subsequent centuries. Today it serves as a marvelous and original example of Islamic architecture; in fact, it is the only Muslim palace in Europe** aside from Alhambra in Spain.
Fun facts I learned during my tour of the Bakhchisaray Palace:
- The palace complex had its own mosque, harem, gardens, living and administrative quarters;
- Polygamy was frowned upon by Crimean Tatars. Most men had only one wife (the Khan himself was the only exception), women did not cover their faces, and a woman had the right to sue for divorce if she was not adequately provided for by her husband;
- All male offspring of the Khan had equal rights to succession and the heir was picked by a special council. Eventually the Khan got the right to hand-pick an heir;
- Eunuchs who looked after the harem were usually tween male relatives of the wives and concubines and were never castrated – that was viewed as a major violation of the religious law;
- Khan Qirim Girai, despite being a total hard-ass on the battlefield and as a ruler in general, apparently was a major softie on the inside. When his young wife died in 1764, he broke down in tears and ordered the construction of the Bakhchisaray Fountain, or the Fountain of Tears that would “weep, like him, forever.” The fountain had since become a symbol of eternal love, and Russian poet Alexander Pushkin even wrote an epic poem inspired by it, after visiting Backchisaray Palace in 1820.
*Wikipedia describes Crimea as “roughly the size of Vermont.” It is such an astoundingly Ameri-centric frame of reference. Is the rest of the world that familiar with the size of Vermont? Or even its location? Are most Americans? Wasn’t there a small European country they could have used instead? Albania, Macedonia and Armenia are pretty close. Also Haiti and Rwanda from other continents…oh, never mind.
**Obviously not including Turkey in the count, because it sometimes falls under definition/divisions of Europe, but most of the time it does not, especially in terms of cultural heritage.